‘Retail offer’ studies: city centre survivors

Statement explaining reasons for closure, in the window of Burgins, Coney Street

Recently, in local media reports, there has been a focus on the declining ‘retail offer’ in York city centre. Long-established shops closing, shop units empty for a long time on the main shopping streets, so many restaurants and bars opening instead. It’s a trend we’ve all noticed and it has been going on for a while.

Because of this trend I started to think about the shops that have been around for decades, since I was a teenager, since the 1980s. Small city centre shops, family businesses many of them, places selling useful things.

In summer last year I started to take photos of some of them, intending to publish a page on the subject back then. I didn’t get around to it, but now seems a good time.

The local media outlets are focused on news, so a new shop opening gets attention, and shops closing get attention, because they’re ‘events’, newsworthy. In between the opening and the closing there’s the long slow matter of building a business and keeping it going.

So a few photos follow, a reminder of some of the survivors, small local businesses that have been around for some decades in the city centre. Notes and queries follow towards the end of the page.

In a particularly handsome shop, in the shadow of the Minster, Shared Earth.

Shared Earth, on the corner of Minster Gates and Petergate

Some wonderful things in here, handsome wood and colourful textiles. More information on Shared Earth and its history (it opened in 1986) can be found on the website.

Round the other side of the Minster, on Goodramgate, Make Your Mark, selling rubber stamps.

Make Your Mark, Goodramgate

I’ve never bought a rubber stamp, but did notice that the shopfront and website says that this city centre shop has been providing them since 1985, which is an impressively long time.

Just down the road, by Monk Bar (as its name suggests), the Monk Bar Model Shop.

Monk Bar Model Shop, 2 Goodramgate

Monk Bar Model Shop, 2 Goodramgate

Still going strong, after 54 years. I’ve never been in, but have often admired their window display. More information on the website.

On Patrick Pool, near the Shambles market, Ernie Roy’s (which I’ve written about before).

Ernest Roy, Patrick Pool

The marvellously-named Duttons for Buttons, on Coppergate.

Duttons for Buttons, Coppergate

I was in here recently, not for buttons, but for thread for sewing, which they also sell. They were very helpful in assisting me to get the right shade of green to match a garment I was trying to mend. See their website for more on the history of this shop, and the page about Duttons on the Indie York website (worth a browse for information on other local independent businesses).

On the corner of Colliergate and King’s Square, Tullivers.

Tullivers, Colliergate

Tullivers (from King’s Square, by the mulberry tree)

See the Tullivers website for more information on this valued local shop. It’s a place I’ve been going in for years, recently to buy flour after starting to make bread at home on a regular basis. (I was pleased to see that the range includes flours from Suma, a workers’ co-operative founded in the late 70s in Leeds, and apparently still thriving.)

And of course Barnitts, also on Colliergate, indeed taking up much of one side of the street, with expansion into more shop units in the last decade or so.

Dear old Barnitts, Colliergate

Barnitts is still a family-owned business and it has been part of York for well over a century. ‘I love Barnitts’, people will say. It’s one of those shops that has always been there, its being there gives a sense of continuity and solidity, while all around it changes. Taken for granted, a bit, perhaps.

Though I’m reminded of this mention of its caring customer service, and was also interested to read this thought-provoking comment on the shop’s ‘dementia friendliness':

There’s a Hardware shop in York called Barnitts. It is a labyrinth of doors, floors, multiple entrances and shelves stacked to the rafters with the most complex array of materials and gadgets – a real assault on the senses. The York Minds and Voices DEEP group all agree that it is the most ‘dementia friendly’ place in York. Why? – not because it has a sticker in the window, or that the staff have undergone some awareness programme – no. But because staff are everywhere, because it is disorientating for EVERYONE who enters. The staff know this and will take you to the item you need and even run upstairs and fetch stuff, regardless of any disability or diagnosis.

(https://dementiafriendly.wordpress.com/2017/07/11/im-not-sure-i-like-that/ – the whole piece is well worth reading)

Some city centre shops have managed to survive and prosper and others haven’t. If they have prospered in the past it appears that it’s now harder and harder to maintain a city centre presence, for a variety of reasons.

In a ‘utopian’ vision of York I wrote some months back I included the hope that the staying power of maintaining things would be celebrated, in the face of the recent celebrating of endless innovating. I’ve started loads of things, in a spirit of enthusiasm, that bit is relatively easy. It’s the sustaining that’s hard, isn’t it.

There are clearly many factors affecting the ‘retail offer’ in the city centre, and some of them we can’t do much about. We don’t have much power, most of us. But we have our ‘spending power’, and that’s something I’ve thought about more and more as I’ve got older. It’s political, it’s important, what we enable and support with our money (and what the powers that be support, or demand more rent and business rates from).

If we want York city centre to still have shops selling useful things, where many people, often over several generations, have worked to make it work, with the profits and wages going to people who have a connection to/roots in the city, I guess it would help if more of us shopped at them more often.

It’s difficult to imagine what the city centre will look like, and feel like, if the current trends continue.


In the small selection above I’ll have missed other city centre shops I probably should have included, so feel free to add comments to highlight others within the city walls that have been around since the 80s or before. Nice positive comments about any of the above, or thoughtful comments about the retail offer in general are also welcome. Negative comments about disappointing visits to individual shops aren’t welcome and may be removed — please use more appropriate things like Google reviews for those kinds of complaints — we’re trying to be positive and supportive here on this page. Thanks.

. . . . .

I haven’t been paid for this free promotion/advertising of selected local businesses – it’s just something I put together in my usual ‘interested observer’ kind of way. If you appreciate the above, virtual coffees are welcome, as always.

You can find me on Twitter, or join the mailing list for updates on recent additions.

About Lisa @YorkStories

Lisa @YorkStories is the creator, administrator, and writer of content on www.yorkstories.co.uk. She can be contacted on this link or via Twitter, @YorkStories
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  1. York is suffering retail decline due to internet shopping, but also due to the Council shooting itself (or the retailers and citizens) in the foot by giving permission for Monk’s Cross 2. This was expected to suck £50,000,000 per year out of the city centre economy – a figure provided by the Council’s own retail consultants – but still they went ahead with it. The damage has been done. We must now try to support the surviving independents as much as we can: http://www.indieyork.co.uk/

    • Thanks for adding the link to Indie York – I noticed the site has a good page of info on Duttons for Buttons, I’ve now added the link to the text above.

      On the competition from Monks Cross, and the other out-of-town places, just because they’re there doesn’t mean we have to shop at them – and that’s the point I was trying to make.

  2. Nice post, keep up the good work.

    I have a small specialist record / book shop on Gillygate, now entering it’s 7th Year trading. In the big scheme of things, I guess we’re pretty niche. Our customer base consists of a small army of local regulars, non-local semi-regulars, and the odd random tourist.

    Your point “just because out of town centres are there, doesn’t mean we have to shop at them” is right, but people *do* choose to shop at them, and this suggests an uncomfortable truth: in a city where many liberal / left-leaning / ideologically anti-globalisation type people like to think of themselves as The Type Of People Who Support Local Indies, the reality is that a lot of them, like billions of other people in the Western world, are slowly drifting away from that sort of traditional high street shopping. Conflicted about this shift, they’ve sought to rationalise it by saying “town is a mess”, “its full of drunks”, “it’s all bars now”, “there’s no shops left” – gross exaggerations all. These narratives are driven to at least some extent I think by people looking to justify to themselves why they never come into town. Yes there are a lot of hen / stag parties around at a weekend – but what does that have to do with somebody *never* shopping in town, at any time? Yes lots of shops have closed – but there are still hundreds of amazing shops here.

    Don’t get me wrong. It’s a discrace that the council currently has no retail strategy, and there are things that can and must be done. But I also wish people would be honest with themselves about their relationship with highstreet shopping in 2017.

  3. I have been spending my hols in York since 1986. I stayed in a little terrace in Kyme St and was slack jawed walking in to the city at the range of beautiful shops..I would remember all those here. I remember Tullivers veggie cafe on Goodramgate and Make Your Mark when it was on Walmgate. Those no longer around would include The Micklegate Collectors Shop,The Blake Head Book Shop and The Wholefood Cafe…The Stonegate Arcade …what happened to that ?

  4. York is slightly unusual for still having real secondhand bookshops and at least two were there in the 70s or earlier – Ken Spelman’s in Micklegate and the Minster Gate bookshop.
    Some of the bike shops must still be there as well, I hope? Though I suspect the huge one on Clifford Street has gone.

  5. Thanks for your interesting article; in my view York is the finest shopping city in the UK. Because of the conservation orders on so many buildings, the chain stores can’t move in and knock them all into the neat rectangular shapes they like; also, most shops are too small. So York is an ideal place for independent retailers like myself to start up (the full story is in my book ‘Coffins, Cats & Fair Trade Sex Toys’). Behind Shared Earth’s success are its huge variety of Fair Trade and eco products; we travel abroad regularly and some of our products you can’t get anywhere else. The uniqueness of York’s shops make it so much more interesting than most towns where all the shops are much the same.

  6. Deborah Roberts

    I well remember The Dolls Hospital , just through the bar in Petergate facing The Hole in the Wall pub.At that time 1950s all dolls came with properly fixed arms, legs and heads and should they get broken that’s where you could get them mended ( no throwing away of toys in those days )
    Does anyone remember the chinese restaurant in Stonegate.
    First of its kind in York in the 1960s and a great treat to go to at the time.
    The tobacconist at the other end of Petergate ( with its red Indian sign outside )
    I used to buy Black Russian and those pretty coloured Sobrani ciggies there on pay day .
    No longer smoke !
    And my mother bought me a wonderful Silver Cross pram for my first child from the pram shop in the next street to the Shambles ( cant recall the shop name )
    My favourite was the little antiques shop in Minster gate run by a boyfriend at the time Chris Holt and his partner .
    I still wear a silver ring from there ( 50 years on nearly )
    Happy days

  7. The logistics of travelling into York have to be taken into account in regards to city centre retail, the park & ride is great but if you live in a village like me, ‘nipping in’ is quite a lengthy operation, compared to getting to Sainsbury’s and back in an hour. I wont go into CYC car parking prices right now as that would be negative (£11 for 5 hours!!!) When i do go in i like to make a day of it, go in a cafe on Gillygate, have a mosey through Museum Gardens, then tick items off the shopping list, usually Tullivers or Barnitts for things that can’t be bought at the nearest ‘retail park’.

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